Child marriage in Uganda, many Ugandan women say it’s a choice and do not see themselves as victims.
When you hear the terms “early marriage” or “forced marriage,” what are the images that pop into your head? Young girls with the charcoal around their eyes smudged by their tears, cowering while juxtaposed next to grizzled older men? Probably something along these lines. That’s how it began for me, at least.
It is impossible to fit an issue as big as early marriage into a neat little box. Something is bound to be lost along the way, particularly when translating a complex issue to an audience completely removed from it. But as a result, we often have a skewed reality that makes a caricature of a nuanced situation, fueling the conventional and misguided views of Africa that so many Americans hold today.
Though it is our responsibility, particularly on a day like International Women’s Day, to try to understand best we can topics such as this one.
Last year as a Fulbright Student in Northern Uganda, I had the opportunity to speak with more than 100 Ugandan women one-on-one across several rural districts. Many of them got married young during the war with the LRA. Currently, more than 1 in 4 girls between the ages of fifteen to nineteen are currently married or living as though they are in some parts of Sub-Saharan Africa.
In these conversations I asked, “why are some marriages forced or early?” More often than not, I heard that these women didn’t always label themselves as victims. They had a choice, they said.
Women told me, “For it to be called marriage, it should be one’s willingness, if I am forced then that is not marriage.” They further challenged my preconceived notions of early marriage with “People get married because they feel that they are old enough to get married.” A resounding 63% of responses to this question claimed that early marriages occur because they are chosen by the girls themselves.
There is a difficult balance between freedom of choice and being forced by circumstance—it’s hard to say exactly where victimization ends and agency begins. I learned through these interviews that girls made these choices due to reasons stemming from poverty, school fees going unpaid, being orphaned by the war, and/or an attempt to find safety and security from the rebels, to name a few.
But even if the Ugandan girls in war-torn Northern Uganda were choosing between the lesser of two evils, and even though they were stuck in sometimes horrifying and life-threatening situations, they still made a choice.
On this International Women’s Day, let’s broaden our understanding and repaint the images we have in our minds of these girls and women. Let’s acknowledge that “early marriage” isn’t always synonymous with “forced marriage.” Let’s try to understand that many of these people do not see themselves as victims, and thus give some of the power back to the girls and women involved.
This, in itself, is empowering.
It should be noted that this data was drawn from a study in one region of one country in Africa, and cannot be generalized to encompass early or forced marriage everywhere.